Keep Immigrants Out Is McCain Refrain That May Mean Re-Election

Senator John McCain
Senator John McCain attends a news conference in Washington. McCain has heeded the demands of voters rallying against illegal immigration. Photographer: Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

Two years ago, Tommy Espinoza stood on the stage of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, to vouch for John McCain’s compassion for immigrants. Today, Espinoza has a dimmer view of the senator.

McCain’s campaign for re-election in Arizona “concluded that if they didn’t take an extreme position on immigration, he was at risk of losing,” said Espinoza, president of Raza Development Fund in Phoenix. “Well, he’s not going to lose, but it’s been heart-wrenching for me. It’s such a radical departure from where he was just a couple of years ago.”

High in the Huachuca Mountains, a hundred paces from the steel-slatted border fence with Mexico, state Senator Russell Pearce, who wrote Arizona’s tough new immigration law, finds himself in rare agreement with Espinoza on McCain’s prospects.

“When he wins, he’ll go back to being the old John McCain,” Pearce said at a rally for Tea Party activists. “He’s got allies on the far left, and he’ll go back to them.”

McCain, 73, whose victory in tomorrow’s Republican primary would clear the way to a fifth term in the Senate, has heeded the demands of voters rallying against illegal immigration. The onetime champion of a pathway to U.S. citizenship for undocumented aliens has stressed tougher border controls to repair a rift with fellow Republicans. Yet that has come at a cost to the 2008 presidential candidate’s cultivated image of independence, raising concern among critics and supporters.

Gateway for Immigrants

McCain is poised to rebuff a challenge by J.D. Hayworth in the primary after matching his rival’s efforts to focus on the issue of border security. That’s a winning argument in a state where authorities estimate half the nation’s illegal immigrants enter from Mexico.

Protecting the border “is a matter of assets, and manpower and surveillance and completing the fences,” McCain said to loud cheers, at an Aug. 14 rally in Payson alongside Governor Jan Brewer, who signed Pearce’s bill authorizing police to check the citizenship of suspected illegal immigrants. Leading up to primary day, McCain hitched flights on Brewer’s five-seat turbo-prop plane to campaign in small towns with short runways.

The most recent poll, a Rasmussen survey last month, had McCain leading Hayworth, 52, a radio talk-show host and former congressman, by 20 points in the primary. In March, Hayworth, who for years has advocated the need to curtail illegal immigration, had closed to within 7 points.

Hayworth said the campaign pits “grass roots versus greenbacks.” On immigration, “I haven’t been outflanked,” he said in an interview. “I’ve been outspent.”

‘Consistent’ Position

McCain and his allies dispute that he’s changed his 2008 immigration position. In an interview, he insisted that he’s been “consistent,” since 2007, when his presidential campaign almost collapsed after he teamed with the late Senator Ted Kennedy to push for an immigration bill.

“We need to secure the border first,” McCain said in an interview. “I said that during the presidential campaign.”

Still, a McCain victory would come with a price beyond the more than $19 million he has spent for the primary: support from onetime Hispanic allies; the “maverick” persona he has promoted in his four terms in the Senate; and his ability to compromise with Democrats in Washington.

“In previous elections he’s stayed pretty steady with his maverick positions,” said former U.S. Representative Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican who has campaigned with McCain since the early 1980s. “In this election, on immigration and social issues, he’s clearly redefined himself.”

Complete Conversion?

Friends and foes agree that McCain has modified some positions in this campaign; they disagree on whether he means it. Old allies say they fear that his conversion to an anti-immigration politician is complete. Longtime opponents, suspicious of McCain for opposing George W. Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 and working to curb the influence of corporate donations in political campaigns, worry that the about-face won’t last.

The debate over McCain’s intentions extends beyond immigration and includes issues that will await him should he win another term in November. From climate change to tax policy, he will legislate in areas where he’s deviated from his party more than once.

It will be a challenge for him “to reverse course again,” said Kolbe. “To go back and play the role of the maverick again is just going to be tough.”

‘He’s For Amnesty’

That’s what his detractors expect him to do.

“I still think he’s for amnesty,” said Mike Vyne, a member of Arizona’s Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, following a night of patrolling for illegal immigrants. “He says we can’t just round up 12 million people, but if they can’t work, they’ll go home,” said Vyne, after peering through a night vision scope for any movement in the Brawley Wash in Pima County.

Hayworth has tried to feed on those doubts about McCain. “It’s as simple as your ABCs,” he told a Republican gathering in Green Valley, 40 miles from the border. “‘A’ is for amnesty: He’s for it, I am against it.”

“‘B’ is for the bailouts. He’s for them. I am against them,” he said. “’C,’ take your pick -- campaign-finance reform or cap and trade, an ill-fitting solution to a nonexistent problem.”

Still, McCain will buck the national anti-incumbency tide because he’s paid so much attention to the border issue, said Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, a supporter.

“McCain improved his position and then outflanked Hayworth,” said Babeu. “You need to have a plan, and McCain has one.”

‘Not Outgunned’

McCain’s money advantage over his rival was on display at a barbecue his campaign hosted for Babeu, trading on the sheriff’s popularity. Hundreds of Pinal County Republicans showed up for a free cookout and swing music. McCain made brief remarks.

Most were there, said Babeu, to enter a raffle, whose prizes included two Glock pistols and a Bushmaster, the kind of semi-automatic rifle Babeu wants each of his deputies have “so they are not outgunned by the drug cartels.”

In April, McCain and Arizona Senator Jon Kyl unveiled a 10-point border security plan that calls for 3,000 national guard troops and another 3,000 customs and border agents. On Aug. 13, President Barack Obama signed legislation for an additional $600 million to improve security and stem the flow of drugs. While McCain praised Obama’s move, he said more troops were needed.

“It’s an election year, so you hear a different tone,” Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said as the Tea Party crowd in Hereford on Aug. 15 chanted “USA, USA” to warn a group of onlookers on the other side of the border not to think about crossing it.

“He used to be with Ted Kennedy,” said Arpaio, a Hayworth supporter who promotes himself as “America’s toughest sheriff” for his stance against illegal immigrants. “Now he’s the biggest hawk on the border.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE